But the state of remembered tranquility was not enough. I wanted a story, with a beginning a middle and an end. Particularly I wanted a happy ending.
And serendipitously, the search got me back to a place where I really did feel healed. This is how.
Stage One – Reason for the Quest
What made me feel so desperate? Well, partly it’s because I’ve hit a difficult place, editing my work in progress. My heroine is in a bad place and I don’t think the story events are strong enough to get her out of it.
At the moment everything seems to be about writing. Twice this week I’ve had to get up before it’s light to write down a scene or some story element of the next book, banging on the door, demanding to be written. Before it’s light is about 4.15 in June here in London.
And, of course, the other reason I’ve been thinking about – no make that longing for – a healing story is the dreadful news on the media. That is especially, but not exclusively, from Ukraine. How do decent people get to the place where they can hate so much they wipe out a whole city? Who could honestly blame a righteous avenger in those circumstances?
People ran across from one sector to the other, met friends missed for years, found new generation relatives and hugged strangers.
Round the world there was a general feeling of let’s get this party started.
Stage Two – Unreliable Memory
Only, of course, people didn’t break down the Wall quite as I remember it from the photographs. Did I not know this at the time? Or have I just forgotten?
Momentum began to build on the 9th November 1989, after East German spokesman Gunter Schabowski announced at a Press Conference that every East German citizen would be allowed to travel to the West, effective immediately. The West German Press reported this as if the border were already open.
At once people began to gather on both sides of the Wall. By the end of the day there were huge numbers. Photographs exist of East German guards trying to restrain them.
At 11.30 at night, there was a general rush on the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint and border guards just gave up trying to check passports.
In 2014 a German movie company released a film about it from the point of view of the border guards. It’s a comedy! Now, that’s a healing story, all on its own.
Over the course of that night, people began to push through other checkpoints. The Brandenburg Gate, that great symbol of the barrier between the two Germanies, which had been closed since 13th August 1961, didn’t get in on the re-opening act until 22 December 1989.
Stage Three – The Party Starting?
But I couldn’t be wrong about the partying? Surely Pete Seeger went to Berlin and played at a folk festival to celebrate the Wall coming down?
Um, no. It was Denmark. And quite a few years later. Probably 1993. Actually, that was about the time I started going into the Former Soviet Union for the IMF to help with the reconstruction of the economies of various newly independent states. Memory fail again.
Still, Pete Seeger and I were part of the same general move to hopefulness, and that’s pretty cool. Wish I’d known it at the time.
But starting from my erroneous memories, I came across a fabulous account of what actually happened by the wondrous Arlo Guthrie. And it’s much better than I thought.
Stage Four – Freedom Songs
According to Guthrie, there was a feeling of euphoria, “not just in that part of the world but sort of all around the world, y’know. Seemed like things might loosen up a little bit. People could relax or something. Didn’t last long. But it was a wild feelin’.”
Yup. I remember that. Taking books to my interpreter’s parents, ballet gear to her small daughter, cream crackers to an anglophile who hadn’t tasted one for forty years. Lovely feeling. Lasted about as long as it took Putin to get appointed head of the FSB on 25th July 1998.
Meanwhile, in Denmark 1993, Guthrie and Seeger thought they were playing a little folk festival. Then thirty thousand people turned up, from all over the world – for three days of drinking German beer and folk-partying. Pete Seeger led them in, as Guthrie says dryly, “All the songs that used to be important to us a couple decades ago.” Songs like We Shall Overcome and, no doubt, Blowin’ in the Wind.
And everyone knows the words!
Only then Seeger invites Guthrie to sing – but Seeger had already used all the material that audience might know.
Scrabbling around, Guthrie comes up with – “Here’s one you might know. Made popular by that king of folk singers, Elvis Presley.” And he starts to sing, I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.
Seeger, possibly the world’s greatest Protest singer, frowns.
Then Pete gets up and goes to the microphone. What’s he going to say? Oh, not saying anything. He’s playing the banjo. And – hang on – Pete knows the Elvis song too!
When I stopped laughing, I remembered all those people who either don’t read romantic fiction or do but “confess” to it and call it a guilty pleasure.
And that’s why this is a healing story in at least four ways – unexpected fellowship from the world, unexpected solidarity from a friend, unexpected harmony coming out of a frequently despised popular song and a great laugh.
Here’s where you can see Arlo Guthrie tell it for himself. Some great thoughts about how proud he was of all sorts of things that I would be proud of, too, in his place. And on folk song, as well. And you get pretty damn good music as a bonus. Enjoy!
Stage Five – Feelin’ Good
So that’s me healed. Hope it works for you too. Now, back to editing…